Talking to a celebrated musical artist of whom the Wikipedia entry alone runs to more than 4,000 words, when he has a busy day of interviews for radio and press ahead of him, it’s advisable to get straight in there and pique the interest.
Accordingly, I sought out a little common ground, tackling Steve Harley on his formative days in journalism, the career he jettisoned to throw himself into the dubious world of rock’n’roll … to great effect.
And 45 years after his first album with Cockney Rebel, The Human Menagerie, he’s still touring frequently, fronting his own acoustic trio, accompanied by long-standing bandmates Barry Wickens (violin, guitar, part of the set-up since 1984) and James Lascelles (piano, percussion, recording with Steve since 2003), the set built around his 13 original albums, bigger hits blending in with tracks from more recent critically-acclaimed LPs like 2005’s The Quality Of Mercy and 2010’s Stranger Comes To Town.
Steve, born in 1951 in South East London – the second of five children to a milkman and a semi-professional jazz singer – started out in newspapers in 1968 at the age of 17, a trainee accountant with the Daily Express, going on to be a reporter, training with Essex County Newspapers and working for the Essex County Standard, Braintree and Witham Times, Maldon and Burnham Standard, and Colchester Evening Gazette before a stint at the East London Advertiser. Apparently, the snapping point came when his editor insisted he write about a shoplifter who stole a tin of soup and a tin of baked beans. Does he ever wonder what might have happened if he’d just kept his head down and carried on?
“I’ve got no regrets. At the age of 21 when I walked away, I’d done my three-year indentures, had 120 words-per-minute Pitman’s shorthand and had covered some really good stories, particularly in my last year at the East London Advertiser.
“We were in Kray land, opposite The Blind Beggar, covering some big news. It wasn’t provincial anymore, and in those days local papers were always run by juniors – around two seniors and five juniors. Every Wednesday night we put the paper to bed in Dagenham, and the next morning we’d find our stuff all over Fleet Street, because it was all good national news.
“I enjoyed it. I liked the life, until I grew tired of it – having spent a lot of time in Bow Magistrates’ Court, wearing the seat of my trousers out, covering stupid shop-lifting stories. But I was writing songs and playing in folk clubs at that time.
“The only downside of it all and the only point I regret was that leaving all that really distressed my parents. My Dad was pretty heartbroken. I hadn’t got anywhere to go. In those days you could leave a job and get another. But I was on the dole for around 10 months, busking, writing songs and forming Cockney Rebel. But I’ve had a great life – 45 years of this and I’ve still got an audience.”
“Oh, they were hungry years, but good days. What can you do? I was 21 and could rule the world. Or you think you can. I lived on the dole and was in bedsits with truly interesting people who went on to have good careers in the art world and in journalism, surrounded by interesting and bright young people and great company.
“Paul Henderson, who I trained with, went on to the Daily Mail, and is now editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror and still my mate. John Blake is in publishing. He was on the Hackney Gazette. We sat together in magistrates’ courts and are still very close friends. Pauline McLeod went on to be successful as well. There were loads of us.”
Apparently, TV presenter, columnist and novelist Richard Madeley was another, taking over Steve’s desk at the ELA in 1972. Yet this action-packed career might never have got off the ground, Steve having during the summer of 1953 contracted polio, leading to long periods in hospital as a youth, undergoing major surgery in 1963 and 1966.
But while recovering from the first operation at the age of 12, he was introduced to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, the prose of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf, and the music of Bob Dylan, and was duly inspired to carve out his own creative career.
It’s interesting how many talented people in various artistic walks of life suffered serious illness and bouts of confinement as children, I suggested – from comedy scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (tubercolosis) to leading lights in the punk world like Ian Dury (polio) and John Lydon (meningitis). Did his own recuperation help him focus and take something from all that reading?
“Yeah, I think when you’re bed-ridden, like I was … and you could also bring into this equation Joni Mitchell and Neil Young with polio too … I spent nearly four years in hospital, on and off from the age of three and a half through to 16, including two one-year stretches. In each ward there were a dozen or so under-16s at our children’s hospital in Surrey, so you had your pals so didn’t feel the pain – you get through it at that age. But it made me quite solitary.
“My bedside cabinet – this brown wooden thing with the grapes and the Lucozade on top – if you opened that you’d have found notebooks, pens and literature. I read a lot, way off the scale. I was 15, doing my O-levels from a hospital bed, ahead of the curriculum. The school would send everything down to the hospital every week, 12 miles away, and the hospital teacher and I completed it all – nine subjects. We had nothing else to do, whereas my schoolmates were in class, having lunch breaks, playing rugby. I was ahead of them.
“By the time I’d finished it all my English master – to his day one of my best friends, Anthony Harding, who taught me how to write and how to be myself – would say, ‘You’ve read Henry V and Othello, and written your essay, would you like to read some John Donne metaphysical poetry? My own hero?’
“He then sent me Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and that changed everything. I didn’t think you could write without using what he called the $10 words. He didn’t need them. I’d read DH Lawrence and needed a thesaurus by the bed with such a rich vocabulary. Then you read Hemingway and it’s like a man talking to you in everyday language.”
I told Steve at this point how my mid-’90s journalism course leader at Preston’s University of Central Lancashire, Vince Kelly, read a few chapters from an early draft of a novel of mine, subtly suggesting I read The Old Man and the Sea, impressing upon me the importance of writing about what I knew – a valuable lesson.
“Well, someone said to me recently they’d read my online diaries and said it was like I was talking to them.”
At this point, Steve talks about another friend from his journalism past, author Brian Southall, who was with Music Business Weekly, Melody Maker and Disc before joining A&M then EMI, his music books including Beatles and Hollies biographies, including last year’s The White Album: The Album, the Beatles and the World in 1968.
“He also trained with me. He was in Chelmsford and I was in Colchester when we were juniors, and we’ve been mates ever since.”
It transpires that he recently contributed to Brian’s latest work, in which musicians talk about their most influential Beatles album, Steve writing about Rubber Soul, and chuffed at the author telling him there was no reason to change a word of his submission.
Did Steve’s parents get to witness his success in music, realising he’d made the right career choice after all?
“Oh yeah, my Dad is now 92. My Mum died 10 years ago, and once they’d seen me on Top of the Pops, it was brag, brag, brag, brag, brag! They forgot the upset.”
Ever get back to your old roots in Deptford?
“I don’t go down there very often. I raised my kids among the cornfields of Suffolk. That’s where we are. We get to London a lot, and just yesterday I was on air with (BBC Radio London’s) Robert Elms, and I’m there for meetings and the theatre a lot. But I don’t need the city anymore. I see enough cities. I travel around a lot.”
At this point, I mentioned how late Status Quo great Rick Parfitt liked to return to hometown Woking (where my Dad and Grandad were brought up), sitting outside his old house in his car, remembering his formative years. And that sparks something with Steve.
“This is very odd. I know those two guys (referring to Rick and fellow Quo frontman Francis Rossi) very well and told Francis this years ago – I’ve met him loads of times since – how when we walked from my Mum’s flat in New Cross Gate in the borough of Deptford up to my school at Haberdashers’ Aske’s (Hatcham Boys’) Grammar School, every day we’d walk past – on a steep hill – a Rossi’s ice cream van, and that was Francis’ family.”
I could have mentioned so many great tracks associated with Steve and Cockney Rebel over the years, songs such as ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean)’ taking me right back to a certain time and place. What’s more, he even managed to get away with covering The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ in 1976, somehow making it his own. Is that the key to it – giving a classic song a different spin?
“Malcolm, I’ve heard maybe 30 of 130 covers of ‘Make Me Smile’, some of which are quite interesting, but most – however – are really just replicas of the original, and I think, ‘Why did you bother?’ But Rod Stewart on his last album, Another Country, covered my song ‘A Friend For Life’ (from The Quality of Mercy), and it breaks your heart. It’s his voice singing my words. It’s wonderful, and he makes it his own. What’s the point of a replica?”
Incidentally, Rod Stewart has described Steve as ‘One of the finest lyricists Britain has ever produced’. Can’t say fairer than that. Anyway, carry on …
“I didn’t get to meet George (Harrison), but I would have told him how I saw that song as (marking) an apocalypse …”
At this point, Steve – sat in a radio studio – had to break off, having a live on-air interview to go to. We should have been done by then, but I like to think he was enjoying himself, arranging for me to call him back half an hour or so later to finish up. But when I got through again, I got the feeling his enjoyment factor had slipped, my next question touching a nerve, after I asked if – while there was clearly lots of hard work involved – there was an element of luck too, not least in coming to the attention of producer Mickie Most.
As I have no hot-shot lawyer on my side and I’d like to keep a roof over my family’s head, I’ll not go into his full response, filling me in on past litigation procedures involving a deal from the early years of his career. Maybe one day it’ll come out in an autobiography. I will print this much though.
“I played five shows at The Speakeasy (Club) with the original Cockney Rebel and then Dave Most came in, who ran RAK Publishing and was a plugger at the Beeb, played my demos to his brother, and he changed my life. It was because what we did on stage was unique and someone – Mickie Most – saw a future. I didn’t get lucky.”
Having cleared that up, I mentioned how I’d reminded myself of a few classic tracks that morning, and ‘Cavaliers’ from 1974’s The Psychomodo came up, something I suggested reminded me of that era, with a hint of a Mott the Hoople … but was perhaps more of a nod to David Bowie. And again it seems like I’d rattled his cage.
“Well, I wouldn’t credit either of them. You’ll hear what you want, that’s fine by me, and I’m listening. But I played that back with an orchestra and choir for some big concerts, with Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet playing saxophone and percussion, and we ripped the place up.
“On that album you’ve got ‘Ritz’, ‘Tumbling Down’, ‘Cavaliers’, and I’d like to go to my grave believing no one in the world could have written those songs but me. No bragging there. I hear them, and think, ‘Ah, that’s me’. I never listened to Mott the Hoople. I only heard the singles.”
We were interrupted again soon after, and while Steve said he’d call back when he’d dealt with his other interviews, I wasn’t convinced. But just when I was starting to doubt if he’d have time, he returned. And this time he seemed to be in a happier frame of mind.
Putting him on the spot, I asked who he felt were the ‘70s artists he respected who also proved to have that longevity.
“There’s a whole bunch. You know, Roxy Music was always Bryan Ferry’s band, like Cockney Rebel was always my band, Bowie always had his own band, Ian Hunter still plays and plays and plays, acoustic and with other players and rock bands, Sparks still play a lot of concerts when they want to. The point is that to have longevity you have to want to play live and have it in your heart and soul that you were going to be a rock musician for life, not just to dress up and get on Top of the Pops and be famous in Sainsbury’s.
“The list could go on, and so many from that period are true survivors. Brian May and Roger Taylor can’t stop going out there, pretending to be Queen. They’ve both got more money than Croesus, but they can’t stop. It’s in the heart and soul. Roger is desperate to be a rock star. Bless him, he’s the nicest guy. They ask me, ‘Could I stop?’ and I just can’t not do it. Once you get on a bus with the guys, you know what you’re going to be doing, and everyone feels an uplift. If you’ve survived to a certain age, you’re really good at what you do.”
Well, Steve’s acoustic trio set-up certainly seems to work well for him. As he put it, “Playing the songs in an acoustic format gives me time and space to enjoy every second. And we improvise, exciting for any musician. We can loosen off arrangements and really explore.” And this tour’s bandmates have been at his side for some time now.
Do you tend to chop and change set-wise a fair bit? I can’t imagine you sticking to a formula and going through the motions on that.
“I couldn’t. That’s not the deal. We’ll go on the road next week with 40 titles listed, and each night we’ll play 25, so on the bus I’ll decide what to knock out, what to put in. They love it, and it keeps everyone on their toes. And it keeps the buzz going. ‘What key’s that in?’ ‘Don’t panic! Put your headphones on, listen to it once. You played it five years ago!’ These guys don’t forget. It’s absolutely lovely.”
Some saw the ‘80s as your wilderness years, but I’m guessing it was important that happened in retrospect, not least having the chance to concentrate on your family and the things that really mattered, perhaps giving you the hunger to carry on later.
“Yeah, I had a really hedonistic ‘70s, I was tired, I met Dorothy (Steve’s wife of 38 years), fell madly in love, and we had two children. And the world was changing. Punk had come and gone, there was … what d’you call it? The new romantic thing with the silly haircuts and synthesisers, and it didn’t suit me at all.
“Then Phantom of the Opera came along and, well, I had nothing else to do, although I knew I would not be singing it live. But at the end of the ’80s, someone came and said to me the Germans want you on tour. I said I didn’t know if I could still do it anymore, having lost all my confidence. But they said give it a go, I was pushed out there, and I’ve been on what Dylan would call that never-ending tour ever since.”
Along the way, there’s been so much great music. Is there a certain track or album you feel should have received far more kudos, that would have been a surefire hit in a different era?
“It would be the new ones, that are privately released and don’t get big coverage. We do half of the songs on stage and people love them, and those CDs sell on the road. The Quality of Mercy, two records ago, is the best album I made in my career, after The Psychomodo. But the great public doesn’t know it. And that’s ok too. I bump into people in the most obscure of places, they mention a song from that album, and I say, ‘You know that album? That’s my favourite album ever!’ It’s a great feeling.”
Given a bit longer I’d have asked more about his biggest hit too, the sublime ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, a UK No.1 that’s sold more than a million and a half copies and according to the Performing Rights Society is one of the most played records in British broadcasting, yet somehow retains its initial impact 40-plus years on. But the story was told so well by Steve and producer Alan Parsons (interviewed by Dave Simpson) in an article two years ago in The Guardian.
Soon he was away again though, this time for a live interview on BBC Radio Nottingham. I had no compaints though, coming off the phone with Steve having made me smile again after a genuine, kindly reminder to come up and see him at the Morecambe Platform or Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion on this tour. And I look forward to that.
Steve Harley’s acoustic trio tour includes dates at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre (Saturday, March 2), Salford’s Lowry Theatre & Gallery (Sunday, March 3), Morecambe Platform (Saturday, March 30, 0871 220 0260) and Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion (Thursday, April 4). For the full itinerary and all the latest from Steve, head to http://www.steveharley.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.